Maintaining Rights for Students with Disabilities During a Pandemic

By Katie Embley

There is a long list of potential disabilities that can make school more difficult for students. Some students have learning disabilities, orthopedic impairments, or speech impediments. Students may suffer from hearing or vision loss, or they might have a developmental disability like autism. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of students ages 3-21 who received special education services in the 2018-2019 school year was 7.1 million, or 14% of public-school students. Each of those students has unique needs that must be met to help them progress.

To help schools meet those needs, Congress adopted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This law created educational opportunities for what is now more than 7 million students nation-wide, promising them a “free and appropriate public education.” The law authorized grants to support special education and early intervention. Congress explained that:  

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

Under this legislation, educators and parents work together to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for each student. The goal is to educate these students in the least restrictive environment possible and provide the necessary accommodations and modifications for them to be successful.

The Pandemic Hits

When COVID-19 initially spread around the world, schools had to come up with creative ways to safely continue teaching children. In most cases, this meant temporary and even long-term school closures and a transition to virtual learning. These changes created significant challenges for educators and students.  It’s been a struggle for teachers to figure out how to engage students and manage a classroom online. It’s been a struggle for parents at home, trying to support their children. And while it has been a difficult transition for many students, those difficulties have been magnified for many students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities might have a difficult time without in-person contact. They might struggle with the lack of structure, and the lack of individualized, consistent support. There are specific adaptations that might be difficult to incorporate with the remote learning technology a teacher is using. For example, students with sight-impairment may need voice activation or larger onscreen images. Students with hearing impairments may need captioning. Students with physical impairments may need extra help or special technology to access and navigate their online connections. It is harder to control their learning environment and eliminate distractions. These kinds of accommodations used to be taken care of in the classroom, but the sudden changes under emergency circumstances meant special education students were thrown into unplanned, unorganized learning spaces.

Many school districts and educators have been going above and beyond, coming up with creative ways to engage students. Some teachers have helped students from their front porches, or offered individual FaceTime sessions, or sent familiar toys and tools home from the classroom. But in most cases, even with these valuable efforts, there are still things falling by the wayside and progress being lost.

In spite of the challenges to schooling presented by the pandemic, students with disabilities still have a right to “free, appropriate public education.” However, some school districts are concerned that meeting the requirements of IDEA might not be possible at this time. There is a lot of pressure, as they are worried about the legal consequences that would come with not complying with these laws. Some lobbyists have requested waivers on behalf of these school districts, but so far, those requests have been denied.

Returning to School

On his first day in office, President  Biden issued an executive order called  “Supporting the Reopening and Continuing Operation of Schools and Early Childhood Education Providers.” He directed Departments of Education and Health and Human services to gather data about school closures and set a goal for the majority of kindergarten to eight-grade schools to reopen within 100 days.

While the option to return to schools will certainly be a long-awaited relief for many students and their families, it is likely that the transition will be a complicated process. For students with disabilities, the lack of proper services during this unprecedented time may mean that they have regressed in their academic, social, and developmental skills. Miriam Rollin, director of Education Civil Rights Alliance, told US News:

“The reality is that most likely whenever kids go back to school after the coronavirus, there is going to be regression for all kids. But the problem is kids with disabilities are starting further behind and they’re likely to regress even more. That’s why it’s such a moral and legal imperative to make sure schools are doing everything possible.”

Some states have already created programs specifically designed to help students with disabilities who have suffered skill regression or learning loss during school shutdowns. These types of compensatory services can be a help to the students, but likely will only scratch the surface of their needs. Schools and resources have been stretched thin. Once schools begin opening again, they will need to be very aware of how the needs of their students, especially those with disabilities, have changed. Though it will be a struggle, they must continue doing everything possible to provide these students with their legally protected right to education.

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